Controlling water symbolism, shaping thought

Hello again to you all,

Recently i’ve been thinking about an idea that I had a few months ago, but that recent source material discoveries have clarified for me. In short, I am pondering the effect of control within water symbolism, and the implications of this change for medieval thought and imagination. I will begin with an interesting passage from Thomas Aquinas’ 13th century commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, in which he devotes a great deal of time to water symbolism. The commentary begins with a reference to Ecclesiastes:

I, wisdom, have poured out rivers. I, like a brook out of a river of a mighty water; I, like a channel of a river, and like an aqueduct, came out of paradise. I said: I will water my garden of plants, and I will water abundantly the fruits of my meadow.Eccl. 24:40

Aquinas then begins his commentary with a protracted exegesis of this passage, unpacking its meaning literally, allegorically, morally and anagogically. It was the following paragraph that caught my attention:

Rightly therefore it is said in the person of the Son himself: A like the river Dorix, and like an aquaduct went forth from Paradise. This paradise is the glory of God the Father, from which he went out into the valley of our misery not so that he would lose it, but because it was hiden: hence John 16, 28: I departed from the Father and I came into the world.

This passage equates salvation with the aqueduct, for both control the flow of a powerful and indiscriminate river, the former comprised of spiritual meaning, the latter with water of the material and literal kind. Thus, through the workmanship and intervention of God in the form of the Son, the vale of tears that is the human world is irrigated with the waters of paradise, tying the human race to its Supreme Good (the imago dei or image of God represented by Adam and Eve before the Fall, and recaptured by the body of Christ).

Fruit is designated from where it is said like an aquaduct: for just as many aquaducts divided are produced from one source to make fertile the earth, so from Christ flowed forth the kinds of diverse graces to plant the Chruch, as it said in Ephesians 4, 11: He gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, others evangelists, others shepherds and teachers, for the completeness of the saints in the work of ministry, for building the body of Christ.

Through the ‘aquaduct’ of Christ, the blessings of the divine fountainhead are divided into diverse streams, spreading the blessings of divine insight amongst the faithful. This reminded me of some less spiritual and more everyday passages from some primary sources that I have studied in the past. The following references are taken from a 1993 Penguin compilation entitled The Cistercian world: monastic writings of the twelfth century.

A  description of the abbey of Clairvaux provides similar symbolic references to those made by Aquinas, showing an enactment of abstract spiritual beliefs within the landscape of Europe. The river Aube, flowing through the monastery grounds, was equated to the wild and torrential river of knowledge flowing out of paradise.  Tamed by the monks of the Abbey and “divided up by a network of streamlets” to feed and nourish the community, the river becomes a literal equivalent of Christ’s salvation, watering the fruits of the abbey in abundance.

We are told that “This water, which serves the dual purpose of feeding the fish and irrigating the vegetables, is supplied by the tireless course of the river Aube, of famous name, which flows through the many workshops of the Abbey”. “Wherever it passes,” we are told, “it evokes a blessing in its wake, proportionate to its good offices; for it does not slip through unscathed or at its leisure”.The river “sends half its waters into the monastery, as though to greet the monks and apologize for not having come in its entirety, for want of a bed wide enough to carry its full flow”.

Clairvaux was a religious community devoted to individual study and devotion, and the allegory of the river divided into many paths corresponds to the many paths of divine knowledge within the monastery (and also to the multiple disciplines of the Seven Liberal Arts that I have discussed in a previous post). The water is captured and tamed by the monks, providing them with food, water for the brewing of beer and blessing their Abbey with an Eden-like beauty. The teeming waters of knowledge could be tamed and made to work for the religious community, filtered through a series of man made mechanisms, studied and utilized for spiritual progress. By tirelessly working to make good things using the power of the water, the monastery is fighting against the corruption of the Western world.

Finally, I will end this post with a passage from Boccacio’s Decameron which, although later than my period of interest, shows the continuation of this symbolism into the 14th century:

“At the center of the lawn there was a fountain of gleaming white marble with superbly sculpted reliefs; and in the middle there stood a pillar surmounted by a statue through which a jet of water (whether naturally or artificially induced) sufficient to turn a mill-wheel shot up high into the air to drop most musically into the limpid pool. The surplus water in the fountain was drawn off by a conduit concealed beneath the lawn, to re-emerge in the most beautiful and ingenious watercourses that encircled it; thence the water criss-crossed the garden in a network of similar channels and ultimately was collected at a point where it flowed out to descend to the plain in a crystal stream; before it reached the plain, however, it applied its immense power to turn a pair of mill-wheels – to the not inconsiderable profit of the landowner.
The sight of this garden, so beautifully laid out, with its plants and the fountain and the watercourse fed by it, so enchanted the ladies and the three young men, they all insisted that, were it possible to build a heaven on earth, they would be at a loss to know how else to embody it but as this garden, nor could they imagine a single thing that might enhance its splendour.”

This collection of material has definitely provoked some ideas within my overly-full noggin. How do ideas of control and indeed, of artifice, affect the symbolism of water? Is the paradise imagined by medieval theology and philosophy brought about through the fruitful application of technology? Can paradise be replicated through the efforts of humanity?

Perhaps not, for as Boccacio (and indeed all of medieval thought) implies, it is not possible to create heaven on earth. Any copy of a perfect ideal within an imperfect world is merely a symbol, a contraction, and not the real thing. Yet through the labor and artifice of humanity, a representation of the more perfect labor and artifice of the Trinity in the providence of salvation may be glimpsed. The symbolic implications of this striving are powerful, for the emulation of heavenly ideals upon the surface of the earth serve to school the human mind in the superlatives of its existence. Thus, when encountered, the soul will know the form of its perfect good, and in knowing it love it, and in loving it move closer to it.

Intriguing ideas no doubt, but as yet extremely vague and unfinished.

I hope that you have enjoyed my post, and I wish you all the best.

-James


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